Braille Monitor                         May 2021

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Overreliance on Overlays is Counter to Enculturation of Accessibility

by Anil Lewis

Anil Lewis From the Editor: As an organization representing the blind, new technology almost always presents us with promise and peril. Few companies come to the blind to understand our needs before developing their products and advertising them as being responsive to us. Nothing about us without us seems never to have occurred to them. Our challenge is to deal as constructively as we can with what they propose and see if we can make it something that really enhances our lives and, in this case, our access.

As Anil states in the article that follows, we want to reveal false promises for what they are, whether made by companies advertising artificial intelligence or by those using human coders who fall short. Anytime a company over promises and under delivers, they are doing a disservice to blind people and the businesses they are promising to serve. At the same time, we do not want to react in a way that means we are no longer in discussions and at the table as new technologies emerge to solve an ever-increasing problem as we try to take advantage of the internet. Here is what Anil has to say about what we desire, where we want to be, and where we currently are when it comes to the accessibility of the internet and the web:

There has been an ongoing growth of entities that offer overlays, “a broad term for technologies aimed at improving the accessibility of a website by applying third-party source code (typically JavaScript) to make improvements to the front-end code of the website." (https://overlayfactsheet.com/) Some companies claim that these accessibility toolbars, apps, widgets, or plugins allow the user to enable various accessibility functions such as optimizing for screen readers, increasing keyboard accessibility, and enhancing color contrast. Some companies even profess that their overlays are the simple accessibility solution for businesses and organizations that can make their websites compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and protect them from lawsuits.

Access to the products and services made available through accessible websites increases the ability for the blind to be competitive and attain a greater quality of life. With the proliferation of the development of inaccessible websites and the lack of qualified, skilled developers to address the problem, our ability to use these products and services continues to be threatened, and it is imperative for the National Federation of the Blind to evaluate any potential strategies that may address this concern.

Let me state emphatically and unequivocally that the preference of the National Federation of the Blind is for all technology, including websites, to be accessible at implementation through the integration of development best practices that include accessibility during the design and development phase. This has come to be referred to as “born accessible.” Moreover, we encourage that companies strive to enculturate accessibility throughout the entire organization.

Through enculturation, accessibility becomes part of the normal course of doing business. However, enculturating accessibility does require an evolution in the way business should be conducted, and when done correctly, an organization reaps the benefits of reduced cost and a broader customer base. There is definitely a business case for creating the infrastructure necessary to develop accessible web experiences. Accessibility opens a company up to millions of blind and low vision customers. Furthermore, with accessibility becoming more of a requirement for contracting with public entities, these lucrative opportunities will only be available to those companies that meet the accessibility requirement.

With the proper staff training, a company’s existing information technology resources can be used to code accessible webpages, produce accessible web content, prepare accessible documents, and procure accessible third-party software, devices, and equipment. This strategy helps an organization increase diversity and inclusion, meet compliance requirements, and increase the value and effectiveness of its products and services. Conversely, the overlay only professes to address the accessibility of the website; it does nothing to assist the executives, managers, and frontline workers to understand the policies, procedures, and systems required to enculturate accessibility.

Some feel that mainstream enculturation of accessibility seems unrealistically aspirational at this time. Others feel it is not the answer to the problem of inaccessible websites, nor will it lead to meaningful accessibility overall. I imagine many people felt the same about the mainstream integration of accessible ramps, doorways, and bathrooms. However, laws, common sense, and yes, the business case have prevailed, and this has come to be more and more of an expectation. Accessible architectural design did not become the expectation overnight; it took time. The same will be true for nonvisual accessibility because it is not just making websites and other products and services accessible to the blind—it is making them easier and more enjoyable for everyone. Therefore, we will remain focused and committed to achieving an expectation for products and services to be born accessible.

Although born accessible is unquestionably our preference, the problem is that the need for accessible sites far exceeds the supply. With an estimate of 380 websites being created every minute (https://siteefy.com/how-many-websites-are-there/), the need for individuals who have the education and training to create accessible websites is woefully insufficient to meet the demand. The Teach Access movement seeks to address this dilemma by integrating the instruction of accessible design strategies into mainstream classrooms, resulting in the developers’ knowledge of accessibility as part of their overall training. After all, as my friend Jeff says, “Accessible coding is just good coding.”

“Teach Access envisions a fully accessible future in which students are equipped to enter the workforce with knowledge of and skills in the principles of accessible design and development and the needs of people with disabilities, which results in technology products and services that are born accessible.” (https://teachaccess.org/)

Teach Access holds the future promise that developers who receive formal training will be able to create accessible websites as part of the design and development process, rather than as an afterthought or add-on. Unfortunately, many of the individuals creating websites today have not been able to obtain formal training that integrates accessibility; they are self-taught using online resources like YouTube and other instructional sites, which may not teach accessibility.

It is true that many of these alternative online methods of learning do not address accessibility, and some reinforce poor accessibility practices. However, an ever-growing number of the online resources do a great job of providing instruction in accessible coding that results in the development of accessible websites, and individuals—when pointed to the proper online learning tools—can also learn to code using accessibility best practices. Some web authoring tools such as Drupal and WordPress are promoting the use of templates which, if followed, generate accessible code. Apple, Google, and Microsoft are making it easier to create born accessible documents, presentations, and graphics by integrating accessibility features into the tools that everyone uses to create them. Therefore, the answer is to promote more awareness of the need, availability, and benefit of building accessible products and services.

Most large businesses already invest in an information technology staff to create their web presence, and with the proper training, the same staff can acquire the knowledge and skills to ensure that the experiences are accessible. Again, “accessible coding is just good coding.” It is not an additional expense beyond the training and professional development companies already provide. In addition, as a result of Teach Access, more and more graduates will be coming to the table with accessibility embedded in their skills set.

Of course, there is no guarantee that companies with the internal expertise will always create an accessible website. Even the best of developers will create websites that have problems with accessibility. However, rather than being dependent on an overlay strategy that will mask the problem, companies with internal expertise will have the knowledge and skill to identify and correct any errors that may have occurred during the development process without the added expense.

On the other hand, small businesses may not have the infrastructure to invest in the talent required to create accessible websites, and the implementation of an overlay strategy may seem to make accessibility affordable. This leaves the small business overly reliant on the overlay solution because the underlying code is still inaccessible. What happens when the overlay company’s fees begin to increase or the underlying code becomes too complicated to remediate? If the business is unable to hire the necessary information technology staff, the better alternative would be to contract with a third-party vendor that can develop an accessible website. Using this strategy, the company will have accessible code and access to a number of third-party vendors to assist them in maintaining the site if needed. They will also have the ability to develop the internal skill set to maintain their own accessible web presence and the peripheral benefit of applying that knowledge to the creation of other documents, policies, procedures, and systems necessary to make accessibility part of the organizational culture.

Until enculturation of accessibility becomes the standard, we are still faced with the immediate concern posed by the growing number of inaccessible websites and the overlay companies stating they offer a solution. This has become a fairly contentious statement with definite opinions on both sides. Overlay companies also promote that they can protect their business customers from being sued. This is simply not true. Using an overlay does not relieve the business customer of ultimate responsibility, and they will certainly be the target of a lawsuit if one is brought.

We have found that in some instances, implementing an overlay makes it more difficult for a blind person to use a website. There have even been allegations that some overlays, rather than making the website accessible, actually interfere with automated testing tools, providing false positives for websites that are really inaccessible. This means that the website will have the appearance of being accessible without necessarily meeting accessibility standards. (https://adrianroselli.com/2020/06/accessiBe-will-get-you-sued.html#Spoofs)

The overlay companies proudly display the names of the organizations that use their technology. Those companies that can readily implement proper internal accessibility strategies but choose to implement the use of overlays rather than enculturating accessibility throughout their organization should reconsider having their names so prominently displayed. Although this may be marketed as a demonstration of a commitment to accessibility, it is really a public admission of the implementation of an inappropriate practice. Not only is this a poor business decision for the company, but these organizations are also needlessly and irresponsibly perpetuating the false perceptions that threaten to leave blind and low vision citizens without a true commitment to accessibility.

There are those who feel we should condemn the use of overlays and advocate against any further implementation or future development. Although we intend to hold overlay companies accountable for what they do and what they say they can do, we are not prepared to make a judgment that artificial intelligence cannot be used in the future to solve coding problems.

It is important to note that we condemn the deceptive marketing strategies being used by some overlay companies but do not unequivocally condemn the use of overlays. By using the overlay to attempt to provide fundamental accessibility while working to correct the underlying problems with the code, the overlay strategy may be successfully used as an interim step to repair an inaccessible website. This is very much like securing a wound with a tourniquet until proper medical attention can be provided. We offer the caution that this strategy should not be overused because, like a tourniquet, if used incorrectly, it can harm more than heal. If the company does not have the internal knowledge and skill to correct the problem once it has been identified, the implementation of an overlay strategy may deter implementation of a more permanent solution.

In fact, many third-party AT consultants use a variation of an overlay as an interim accessibility strategy. The more responsible third-party providers will also work to train the staff of their customers to code correctly rather than promoting the overlay or even their continued services as the solution.

The National Federation of the Blind is committed to the development and implementation of innovative technology that offers us equal access to information, products, and services—in a way that is fully and equally accessible to and independently usable by the individual with disabilities so that the individual is able to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as users without disabilities, with substantially equivalent ease of use.

Although we have not established a formal policy related to overlays, our goal is for all technology, including websites, to be born accessible, and we encourage companies to strive toward the enculturation of accessibility throughout their entire organization. The overlay companies that engage in the false marketing of their product as a means to provide full WCAG compliance and absolution from litigation are counter to our goal. However, as with other proposed technology solutions, we will continue to rigorously examine the efficacy of the overlay and related artificial intelligence as a potential solution to inaccessible websites in the future.

To be clear, we will continue to call out those companies—all businesses, including the overlay companies—when they fall short of a truly accessible, usable experience. This will be so especially when they falsely advertise their product or service as a solution to a problem that plagues our ability to obtain equal access. This will surely be an item for consideration by our members as a resolution at our 2021 National Convention.

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